Tomase: Looking to cast blame for disappointing Celtics? Start with Brad Stevens

John Tomase
March 25, 2019 - 3:44 pm
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There's a fine line between unflappable and passive, and Brad Stevens is about to trip over it.

What was supposed to be the signature season of Danny Ainge's latest rebuild is once again slipping away, and Stevens seems not only powerless to stop it, but strangely resistant to try.

The issues that have plagued the Celtics all season -- poor shot selection and hero ball in crunch time, the inability to protect big leads or overcome manageable deficits, disjointed defense, a propensity to quit -- continue to vex with the playoffs just a couple of weeks away, and for the first time, Stevens doesn't have the answers.

That much-ballyhooed flight to Golden State now stands as a minor peak in yet another miserable valley. Including those wins out west that supposedly saved the season, the Celtics have lost 10 of 16, including four straight.

They trail the Pacers by two games for the fourth spot in the East with eight games to play and face the unpalatable prospect of needing to win three straight series on the road to reach the NBA Finals. The last team to do that was the 1999 Knicks, who finished eighth in that lockout-shortened campaign before losing to Tim Duncan's Spurs.

Stevens entered the season with the reputation as not only a brilliant tactician, but a shrewd motivator who consistently willed mediocre rosters beyond their collective talent. He did it twice at Butler by reaching national title games, and he did it four times with the Celtics, including consecutive conference finals berths.

But Stevens looks as lost as everyone else this season. The Celtics have teetered on the verge of catastrophe throughout this disappointing campaign, weathering Kyrie Irving's moodiness, Marcus Morris's contention that nothing is fun, resentment on the part of youngsters who believe they deserve more minutes, and Gordon Hayward's painfully slow rehab from a devastating leg injury.

Along the way, they've shown a shocking inability -- especially for a Stevens-led team -- to improve. They still watch Irving too much. They still play lackadaisically with leads and lack the heart to rally. They still surrender a ton of points. They still launch threes like a volley of arrows on Game of Thrones.

And worst off, they look *this* close to quitting on the season completely.

At what point do we stop ripping the players and start wondering how the coach let it happen?

Stevens has been off his game from the start. He opened the year with Hayward in the starting lineup, even though the rehabbing forward clearly wasn't ready. That experiment lasted 15 games before Marcuses Morris and Smart replaced Hayward and Brown.

Morris hasn't played well since December, but his struggles appear to have escaped Stevens' notice, because he keeps getting 30 minutes a night. Shooting .441 on 3-pointers on Dec. 31, Morris is at .324 since, including 1-for-7 in Sunday's loss to the Spurs. He no longer has any business taking Brown's minutes, especially as he reverts to his ball-pounding isolationist ways, but playing time is determined by the coach, not the player.

Meanwhile, second-year forward Jayson Tatum has failed to make a leap by exhibiting the same frustrating offensive tendencies in March that hampered him in October. It would be nice, for instance, to alert Tatum to the fact that every time he passes up a three for one dribble and a pull-up 21-footer, that's bad offense. But as he repeats that mistake nightly you'd like to think Stevens might suggest, "Take the 3," or, "Take it to the rim."

Instead, Tatum remains stuck in between, just like the rest of the team. Irving, for instance, is clearly a handful, and maybe he simply wouldn't respond to any coach. But even if he's right that the Celtics consistently watch Kemba Walker light them up without trapping him like everyone else, there's no point in calling out the game plan. That's a loser move.

Perhaps Irving wouldn't feel so empowered to focus blame consistently on everyone else and only occasionally on himself if he lived in greater fear of his coach. He doesn't play like someone who respects his boss when he makes no effort on defense or becomes a one-man offense. The ball-hawking Kyrie who willingly took charges out west is the exception, unfortunately. Too often he lamely points fingers when his man beats him off the dribble or up the floor. Would it hurt Stevens' standing to remind even his best player that big minutes must be earned?

The same goes for Hayward, who occasionally delivers hang-dog effort. Even if it traces to frustration at his inability to reach his pre-injury form, too often Hayward fails to attack loose balls or his defensive rotations. It's an extension of his offensive passivity. Surely Stevens has noticed, but what has he done about it?

We could keep going. Smart still takes bad shots. Terry Rozier likes to play 1-on-5. The Celtics treat big leads as the perfect opportunity to launch 3's early in the shot clock, which is how they blew another easy W vs. the Hornets over the weekend.

A team built on defense hasn't played much of it since January, allowing at least 120 points eight times in its last 20 games. Can Aron Baynes really be that important?

All I know is the Celtics possess the talent to compete for a title, but they appear headed for a first-round flameout, so here's a simple question: is Brad Stevens going to do anything about it?